Hold your mother tongue

5148231684_57fa0336c9It’s impossible to find a language in which the world can communicate across linguistic borders. For the time being, we make do with English, but that was a bad solution even before the two major Anglophone countries contracted Mad Voter Disease. The language gives a 6% minority of the world population an edge that leaves most of the other 94% impotent and frustrated.

Of course, any world language spoken natively by some would be a weapon of mass destruction in their hands, leaving all others vulnerable and exposed. In amiable conversation, that’s sort of okay – people don’t nuke their friends. But as soon as there’s conflict of interest, the natives win every time. It’s a fact of life and every international negotiator knows it. Personally, I remember participating in a discussion on a UK radio station a few years ago, in which my English opponent was talking absolute, utter and demonstrable rot. I would have devastated the fellow in any other language I speak. But the shots I fired in what happened to be his first language were barely audible amidst his relentless bombing.

So we need something better, but what? Machine translation has potential, but let’s not put our hopes too high in the short term. Esperanto lacks the political, economic and cultural clout. Mandarin then? Who knows. Frankly, I hope not.

There is a solution though. It’s fairer than what we have at present and more realistic than the alternatives. It’s this: not one world language, but two.

One of these would, at this point in history, still be English. As for the other, let’s call it WL. It could be Spanish, it could be Hindi, it could even be Mandarin, never mind how I feel about it. It’s not the exact choice that matters, it’s the fact that, once we all speak both WL and English, we will never be forced to speak to anyone in their mother tongue again. It will become a matter of basic civility to shut up in one’s first language except in the company of those who prefer to use it – mostly fellow native speakers. At long last, the verbal battle field will be level.

But isn’t it simply too difficult to learn two foreign languages, you wonder? Before answering it (in the negative), let me point out that native English speakers would have to learn only one. But more importantly, multilingualism used to be common in Europe and it still is in Africa, India and many other, smaller regions, so learning two languages is perfectly feasible. Moreover, learning English will become easier as soon as we no longer have to listen to people using obscure idioms, talking at breakneck speed and frowning at our grammar – the native speakers that is, and especially the monolinguals among them.

I guess monolingual native English speakers they are to be pitied rather than censured. But they do cause the problem, and now we have the solution. I can’t wait for WL to emerge. I’m hoping it will be Spanish. But I’ll welcome any of the major languages. Communicating in Mandarin, Arabic or Russian, spoken as a second language by both parties, is preferable to being outtalked and patronised by native English speakers.


Update, in response to questions I’ve received by email: no, native speakers of English do not necessarily use more obscure idioms or talk faster than native speakers of other languages – though the high incidence of monolingualism makes them somewhat more likely to do so. But more importantly, their tendency to do so in conversations with second-language speakers is more of a problem than in others, because theirs happens to be the language of international communication.
Also, English-speakers are far from being the only ones among whom we’ve seen recent outbreaks of unsavoury populism. It’s just that this blogpost happens to be about this language. One of the reasons why the 20th century saw a tremendous rise of English was the endless stream of popular and enviable cultural products from the States, and to a lesser degree from the UK also. Trump and Brexit have badly damaged the image of these countries outside their borders. Of course, this doesn’t immediately stop English from being the world language and things may yet swing back, but recent events surely lessens its appeal – and its appeal is what it ultimately owes its status too.

Politically correct spelling

canadaIn chapter 32 of Lingo, I describe – and poke fun at – the way Latvians and Lithuanians write foreign names. Basically, they spell every name as phonetically as possible and then tag on a case ending for good measure. The first US president is known as Džordžas Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Džordžs Vašingtons in Latvian; the capital and state named after him are written as Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Vašingtona in Latvian. In Lingo, I trace the history of this habit, once widespread across Europe, in a very general sort of way.  But at the time, I had no specific information as to why the Lithuanians and Latvians have maintained it, whereas most other language communities using the Latin script dropped it long ago.

Which is why I am grateful to a Lithuanian-American reader of Lingo, Joe Yčas, who recently sent me exactly that. Continue reading

Vietnamese (3): What’s harder than the language

vietnam-1745819_960_720“How’s your Vietnamese coming along?” people ask me, for it’s the sort of outlandish hobby that gets remembered. The answer is: so-so, could be better. I’m struggling with two problems, and I’m pretty sure that many serial language learners are familiar with them.

One is keeping up the self-discipline. I found that not too hard when I was at school, easy when I was staying in Latin America and very easy, indeed irresistible, when I was in love with a German woman. Using Duolingo, with its computer game based psychological tricks, also used to help. But studying at home from a conventional book and CD, motivated mostly by my wish to write an article in a year’s time, I find the going somewhat hard. Continue reading

Idioms and images


Some idioms are puzzling

As chance would have it, I was holidaying in Spain just when I had to read the galley proofs of the Spanish edition of Lingo, so I spent part of the time hearing and speaking one of my favourite languages and another part reading and writing it. It was while reading that I came across a translation that made me pause. The original says that Basque and the Indo-European languages are ‘worlds apart’. The translator, José C. Vales, rendered this as mundos independientes, ‘independent worlds’. Perfectly fine, I think: Basque is one world, Indo-European another, and they’re independent, separate – apart. Continue reading

A gap year on Basque, thanks to Lingo

Guest blog by Lily Finnie (South West London, UK)

photo-of-meIn my last year of school, I was planning on doing an Extended Project Qualification, which is basically an extra qualification answering a question on any topic of your choice. At first I had no idea what I wanted to do it on. My initial idea was an investigation into sound symbolism, but after admitting defeat due to a severe lack of supportive information, I was back to square one.

 As it happened, I had just finished reading the book Lingo, which has a chapter on Basque. It made a question pop into my head: ‘Why is this language so weird?’ Having never heard of ergativity before and experiencing a rapidly increasing, reasonably obsessive interest in different language grammars, I decided to use my project as a way of delving into the world of Basque. And it was with that vague idea as my inspiration that I decided to undertake the project of answering the question, ‘How and why is Basque a linguistic isolate?’ Continue reading

How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Alison Edwards, the linguist who translated my book Lingo into English, is a columnist and blogger that I much enjoy reading. Here’s her latest blogpost. As it was first published in a Dutch university magazine, she didn’t translate the book title at the end, so I will do it for you: The Discovery of Heaven. Or am I blundering into ‘Dutchsplanation’ here…?  

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard the term mansplaining being bandied around; a portmanteau of the words man and explaining. It was inspired by a landmark essay by the Ameri…

Read the full post at How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Both inspiring and disgusting

mcwhorterI love Lexicon Valley, the podcast on linguistics. In a show from June, titled The tragedy of English spelling, John McWhorter (upper picture) interviewed Anatoly Liberman (lower picture). Let that line-up sink in for a second: both of them are not only highly regarded professionals, they’re also great popularisers of the science of language. As an admirer of both men, I was listening breathlessly.

And then, along comes this adorable passage. Continue reading

Vietnamese (2): very early discoveries

adrOver 30 years ago, I studied some Danish from a book. As a result, I understand a lot of the written language, but my idea of what it sounds like is sketchy at best. That was a mistake I didn’t want to repeat with Vietnamese. So the first thing I’ve been concentrating on these past few days is pronunciation and how it relates to spelling.

The good news is that Vietnamese is much, much more consistent in this respect than is Danish (or English, or French). The not-so-great news is that quite a few of the spelling conventions are counterintuitive. And the really bad news is that many of the Vietnamese phonemes are hard to distinguish for my European ears. Plus there’s tones, of course, but I knew that, so it’s no news, just bad. Continue reading

Vietnamese (1): why, and how to begin

vietnamese-alphabetAttending the Polyglot Conference in Thessaloniki, late last month, has inspired me to do a bold and daring thing: start learning Vietnamese. While the language may appear small in comparison to its northern neighbour, Chinese, it actually has no fewer than 80 million speakers. Moreover, one of these, a friendly and wonderfully efficient woman named Tuyết, happens to clean our house every fortnight, so I may have an opportunity for practice there – or at the very least, I will be able to surprise her one of these days. (Days? Make that ‘weeks’. Or ‘months’, more likely.) Continue reading

Dad’s polyglots – a recipe

cookbookA father recently sought my advice about the linguistic education of his two young children. Among the many friendly and interesting emails I get from readers of Lingo, this one really stood out, because his was a question I’d never given much thought to before. Our brief correspondence is reproduced below, anonymised, very lightly edited and, of course, with the father’s permission.


I just finished reading Lingo and wanted to extend my compliments. I’m recommending it to all my friends interested in languages. (I’m American, so unfortunately I can count all these folks on one hand).

I’d like to put a question to you. I have two children under the age of 5, and am interested in giving them the gift of a portfolio of languages while they’re still young enough to learn them very easily. But I want to choose wisely. Continue reading